Twenty-five feet off the ground, Meg Andersen peered out from the crook of a sycamore tree in Middleton, R.I., eyeballing a small flock of cedar waxwings as they fed at a nearby mulberry tree. Except for feeling an occasional twinge of fear, her first rope-supported tree climb had been perfect. “On Earth, you feel bound by gravity, but in a tree, you feel part of the sun and sky,” says Andersen.
Such are the wonders of recreational tree climbing — a sport that, thanks to a few ropes, harnesses and lessons from seasoned instructors, allows just about anyone to enjoy the view from the treetops. Less strenuous and complicated than rock climbing, tree climbing still delivers many benefits, including exercise for less-used muscle groups in the chest and legs and strengthening of the spine — plus terrific sensory stimulation. And the climbs give you access to experiences you can’t have anywhere else.
“Birds come real close,” says Rob Miron, a guide for Pacific Tree Climbing Institute in Eugene, Ore., who acquaints climbers with 300- to 500-year-old, 250-foot fir trees in the Willamette National Forest. “Once we had an osprey with a fish in its talons come within 10 feet of us.”
Find Your Climb
Locating an introductory class in the age-old art of climbing trees is as easy as surfing the Internet under “tree climbing” and spotting a local group offering public climbs. Look for regional organizations, or check local universities or park and recreation departments for community climbing courses.
Allan Manning, owner of Twin Pines Recreational Tree Climbing in Danville, Vt., offers a basic tree-climbing course: a 20-minute classroom lesson in knot-tying and safety strategy followed by a chance to climb to a height of 30 feet — and then, after some acclimation, to as high as 60 feet.
Most students find that supported climbing is decidedly different from childhood scrambles from branch to branch. “They find out that the harness is comfy,” says Manning, “but also that climbing requires physical and mental coordination — you have to alternate standing on a foot loop and sitting down in your harness.”
Once you learn the rhythm, you can relax in the canopy or revel in the scenery: in this case, 35 green acres with a trout-fed pond and the mountains of the Presidential Range in the background.
If a workshop only whets your appetite for more climbing, there’s a whole network of climbers that’s easy to access on the Web. Facebook, Twitter and other social-media outlets like Canopy Chatter on www.treeclimbercoalition.org help climbers connect with each other to arrange group outings. Climbers share recent adventures, post photos and offer tips.
Sydney Lemieux, 57, supervisor of a nature preserve in St. Petersburg, Fla., frequently climbs and connects with friends in the oaks and pines that overlook local waterways like the Clam Bayou and Little Manatee. “We’ll be helping each other transfer from one tree to another, crawling around like monkeys and chatting,” she says.
Rise Above Your Fears
Several years ago, Shari Heinz, 56, a kayaker and bicyclist from Dahlonega, Ga., enrolled in a tree-climbing course as a way to get back in shape and confront her fear of heights. Seeing the chance to conquer two challenges with one workshop, she chose an introductory weekend course at Dancing With Trees in Alto, Ga.
“You just don’t throw a rope from Home Depot up a tree,” Heinz says, remarking on the detailed technical preparations. To get started, she was treated to a 20-hour workshop in “doubled rope technique” (DRT) that would help her understand how to use the ropes to scale the trunk. Next, participants were set up with preset climbing lines (they’d learn to tie their own later), helmets and harnesses that they hooked to the lines with carabiners. Finally, they learned how to step-stand in the rope loops and start their ascents.
After a nerve-racking initial climb, Heinz learned the criteria for tree selection and how to set up the ropes. She was shown how to tie several kinds of knots and set the anchor line for herself. Things were a little awkward at first. “It took me five to 10 throws to loop the rope around an upper branch,” she admits, but eventually she succeeded — and found herself hooked. “The class really helped develop my confidence,” says Heinz, who has gone on to compete at the state level and at the Geezers International Tree Climbing competitions.
Laurie Burnham, 42, a Cincinnati-based artist, also used climbing to strengthen her psyche. Last year, a fear of heights ruined Burnham’s initial ascents, but she still wanted to attend the 2010 Tree Climbing Rendezvous in Covington, Ky., where 100 adults from all over the world spend a week scaling beech and oak trees that reach as high as 100 feet. Among the 15 workshops is a class in which climbers are blindfolded.
“I couldn’t shake the feeling that this blindfolded class was something I needed to do,” says Burnham. Shelly and Bill Byrne, who operate EarthJoy tree-climbing school in Alexandria, Ky., suggested she intern for them first. She could practice knots, position ropes and tree hammocks and, of course, climb. Helping other climbers prepared her for her own ascent, and she experienced something sublime.
“Climbing blindfolded was one of the most moving and profound experiences I’ve had,” she says. “I climbed high until I found my way onto a wide horizontal branch. I have no idea how long I was there, only that I never wanted to come down.”
Enjoy the View
If you want to see a different part of the country — or even a different part of the world — from a bird’s-eye perspective, look for climbing workshops and packages at your favorite destinations. Groups like New England Tree Climbing Association and Pacific Tree Climbing Institute book climbing packages throughout the Northeast and Northwest respectively, and TCI and RealAdventures.com arrange expeditions throughout the United States. Several regional groups, such as Tree Climbing USA, also sponsor annual expeditions to Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest, Costa Rica and Panama.
Master tree-climbing instructor Tim Kovar, of Tree Climbing Northwest near Portland, Ore., has led a number of small groups on international excursions. He’s recently enjoyed tree climbing in Central and South America, especially Brazil’s Amazon jungle, with its aerial gardens of orchids and birds. “When I did my first tree climb in the tropics, it was an eye opener — things are very different,” says Kovar, who has taught more than 5,000 people worldwide. “With lots of creepy crawlies and animal life living in the tropical canopy, your awareness becomes especially sharp.”
No matter where you climb, you’re guaranteed to gain some welcome perspective from above. “It’s all about the trees — the limbs we sit and walk on, the color and texture of the bark and leaves, and the sound of a breeze,” says Ginny Smith, an Atlanta-based information tech who’s taken several climbing excursions with her husband. “Tree climbing is like looking out a high window, only 100 times better.”
Janice Arenofsky is an Arizona-based writer who specializes in human interest stories.